History of Highdown

Other plant collectors associated with Highdown Gardens:
(listed alphabetically by first name)


History of Highdown Gardens

The 8.5 acres of Gardens were created out of an old chalk pit overlooking the South Downs, where there was little soil and very unfavourable conditions for plant growth.

The Chalk Garden at Highdown is the achievement of Sir Frederick and Lady Stern who worked for 50 years to prove that plants would grow on chalk. This was during a period when many expeditions were going out to China and the Himalayan regions collecting rare and beautiful plants.

Many of the original plants from the early collections can still be seen in the Gardens today, particularly plants collected by two pioneering botanists Reginald Farrer and Ernest Henry Wilson.

Memorial plaque in the Gardens to Sir Frederick and Lady Stern:

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Sir Frederick Stern - creator of the Gardens
1884 to 1967

Sir Frederick Stern (340)

Sir Frederick Stern (O.B.E., M.C., F.L.S., V.M.H.) was a man of many interests.

Before the First World War he devoted his time partly to big game hunting in Africa, many trophies used to hang in his library, and partly to riding as an amateur jockey in steeplechases.

He served in the Middle East in the First World War and gained the M.C. and Mil.O.B.E. At the end of the war served for a brief period as Private Secretary to Lloyd George.

Although he had begun to make his garden at Highdown as early as 1909 it was not until he married in 1919 that he settled down with Lady Stern to create together one of the famous gardens of its time out of the uncompromising surrounds of a Sussex Chalk Pit.

He received the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour (VMH) in 1940/41.

He received his knighthood in 1956 for 'Services to Horticulture'.

The Gardens were created during a period when many expeditions were going out to China and the Himalayan regions collecting rare and beautiful plants. Many of the original plants from their early collections can still be seen in the Gardens today, particularly plants collected by Reginald Farrer and Ernest Henry Wilson.

On the death of Sir Frederick in 1967, aged 83, Lady Stern carried out his wishes and left the Gardens to Worthing Borough Council.

See also: Blue Plaque for Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil Stern to commemorate their life and work at Highdown Gardens

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Charles Maries - botanist and plant collector
1851 to 1902

Charles Maries - Wikipedia - Wikimedia

Charles Maries, the botanist and plant collector, was not one of the better known explorers, but his plant contribution was one of the most significant and varied. He was born in Warwickshire and learnt about plants from his headmaster, the Reverend George Henslow, who went on to become the Royal Horticultural Society's Professor of Botany. Charles's brother, Richard, was a florist and nurseryman in Lancashire and when their father died in 1869, Charles went to work at Richard's nursery and stayed for seven years.

Charles joined James Veitch & Sons of Chelsea, London, in 1876, then one of the largest nurseries in Britain, to search for new hardy plants. He spent the following three years travelling between Japan, China and Taiwan collecting seeds and plant specimens. By the summer of 1879, he was back in Japan where seeds of many Japanese oaks were gathered as well as dwarf bamboos, including the Square Bamboo, which he successfully introduced to England. Maries returned to England in February 1880, when his herbarium was sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and his collection of insects was accepted by the British Museum.

In 1881, Charles married Martha Kerr, who later travelled out to India where they married. They had three children, all born in India. In 1882 he became Superintendent of a Maharajah's garden, where he laid out the very extensive grounds around the palaces. Later, he worked for another Maharajah, and again laid out the palace gardens. He remained superintendent of both gardens until his death. While working in India, Maries became an expert on the mangoes that grew both wild and in cultivation. He wrote and illustrated a manuscript entitled 'Cultivated Mangoes of India' but it was never published and is now in the archive at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Like all the plant hunters, he experienced many mishaps, including shipwreck, robbery and an earthquake. On one occasion, his collection was taken by boat to the local port to be sent on to England when the ship ran aground. The box containing the seeds was transferred to another boat, which capsized and sank and the seed collection was lost. Fortunately, Maries had sufficient time to retrace his tracks and he managed to replace most of the missing seeds, which were successfully dispatched to London.

Amongst the many honours he obtained in his lifetime, in 1897 he was one of the first sixty recipients of the Royal Horticultural Society's Victoria Medal of Honour. It is believed he died in India in 1902, aged 51, of a kidney stone.

Maries is credited with discovering over 500 new species, many bearing his name, which he introduced to England, for details see Charles Maries on Wikipedia.

Image credit:

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Clarence Elliott - botanist and plant collector

Clarence Elliott specialised in collecting, growing and promoting Alpine Plants and designing rock gardens.

After a childhood in Craven, Yorkshire, he received training from Rivers and Backhouse and went to South Africa to grow fruit from 1902 to 1905.

On his return to England, he set up Six Hills Nursery at Stevenage, where he grew and sold alpine plants for many years. This could be a risky business, and on one occasion a dissatisfied customer, whose Meconopsis Baileyi poppy seeds had failed to germinate, tried to get Elliott banned from future RHS shows.

Elliott collected plants in the mountainous regions of Europe, where he was latterly assisted by his son Joe. He also collected in the Falkland Islands in 1909, and from 1927 to 1931 made various expeditions to Canada, the USA, Chile, Argentina and the Falklands, sometimes in the company of fellow plant-collector William Balfour Gourlay. Elliott describes using a trowel, hammer and cold chisel to assist his collecting, and the difficulties of extracting the plant roots from the rocks.

Plants were not his only collecting interest, and he also imported from South America a host of animals, including turtles, for the London Zoo.

Elliott considered his best plant introduction to be Saxifraga var. primuloides 'Elliott's Variety', a dwarf London Pride with sprays of pink flowers. He describes collecting this in the Pyrenees in 1911, after evading a very cross bull! He was particularly pleased by the compliments he received at Chelsea Flower Show, and by the widespread dissemination of the plant, which he enabled, as far away as New Zealand.

He also credited himself for inventing the Alpine Lawn, a close mixed sward of plants such as Thyme which never needs to be mown, as a feature of the rock garden.

His work involved the designing of Rock Gardens for clients, and it is in this capacity that he is most associated with Highdown Gardens. He helped Sir Frederick Stern plant the first rock garden, which faced the north, around the pond in 1910. Another rock garden, facing south, was made in 1920.

Over the years Clarence Elliott and Sir Frederick Stern kept in touch. Elliott was especially pleased to note the progress of Saxifraga cochlearis, which he planted at Highdown Gardens in 1914 and which 20 years later was a really memorable plant still making a steady inch of growth per year.

In his book 'A Chalk Garden' Sir Frederick Stern also accredits Elliott with providing Highdown Gardens with Fuchsia magellanica alba, a hardy fuchsia from South America, and Maytenus boaria, an unusual evergreen raised from seeds collected by Elliott in Chile.

In the best tradition of horticulturalists, the exchange of plants was two-way, and Elliott was pleased to receive a houseleek Sempervivum tectorum giganteum from Sir Frederick Stern. Sempervivum tectorum was traditionally grown on roofs to keep away lightening and witches.

Elliott's main published work was Rock Garden Plants, published in 1935 and dedicated to his wife.

He also wrote a series 'In an English Garden' for the Illustrated London News from 1951 to 1964.

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Ernest Henry Wilson - pioneering botanist
1876 to 1930

Ernest Henry (EH) Wilson - Wikipedia - Wikimedia

Ernest Henry Wilson (better known as E.H. Wilson) was born in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire and studied at both the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

In 1899 Wilson was recommended by the Director of Kew for a position as plant collector with the firm of James Veitch and Sons, to travel to China and find a source of the Handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata.

Wilson not only found the Handkerchief Tree but hundreds of additional new plants including the Paper Bark Maple, Acer griseum. The large specimen of Acer griseum in the Lower Rose Garden at Highdown is a Wilson collection from this very expedition.

Clematis armandii and Clematis montana var. rubens, both now very common in gardens in the West, were also discovered during his first trip. Many subsequent expeditions around the globe followed.

He was instrumental in discovering the Lilium regale, the large white trumpet type lily which graces many gardens, the yellow poppy Meconopsis integrifolia and numerous new rhododendrons, roses and primulas.

Wilson became Director of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts in 1927, quite an achievement at the age of 50.

Unfortunately Wilson and his wife were tragically killed in a road accident in Massachusetts just three years later in 1930.

In recognition of his services to horticulture Wilson received many awards including The Victoria Medal of Honour from the Royal Horticultural Society of London in 1912, an award Sir Fredrick Stern was to receive himself 29 years later in 1941, for his own contributions to horticulture.

See also:

Image credit:

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Francis 'Frank' Kingdon-Ward, OBE - pioneering botanist
1885 to 1958

Frank Kingdon-Ward (lib0006147) - copyright RHS Library Collections

Frank Kingdon-Ward* was born in Manchester, son of a brilliant botanist, who was later appointed Professor of Botany at Cambridge.

Kingdon-Ward read Natural Science at Christ's College, Cambridge, but his studies were cut short when his father died. He had an adventurous spirit and a longing to explore Asia, and thus accepted a teaching position in Shanghai. In 1909, he joined a zoological expedition up the Yangtze, which was the start of a life spent exploring and plant collecting.

Kingdon-Ward's energy, scientific background and keen eye for detail, coupled with his passion for both geographical and botanical exploration, saw him undertake over 22 expeditions, over 45 years in China, Tibet, Upper Assam (India) and Burma (Myanmar).

He discovered over 100 new rhododendron species including a yellow flowered species Rhododendron wardii. Perhaps what Kingdon-Ward is most famed for is collecting the first viable seed of Meconopsis betonicifolia, the Himalayan blue poppy, which was first discovered by Pére Delavay.

A prolific writer, Kingdon-Ward wrote 25 books, mostly accounts of his expeditions. During the Second World War, Kingdon-Ward served with the SOE teaching jungle survival to aircrews and establishing safe military corridors through Burma.

Frank Kingdon-Ward

In recognition of his services to horticulture Kingdon-Ward received many awards including The Victoria Medal of Honour from the Royal Horticultural Society of London in 1932, and the Veitch Memorial Medal in 1933. In 1930 the Royal Geographical Society awarded him their Founders Medal. He was also nationally honoured for services to horticulture with the Order of the British Empire.

Stern was a contemporary of Kingdon-Ward and dedicated his book A Chalk Garden, to the explorer.

Plants at Highdown which were from Kingdon-Ward's numerous expeditions:

  • Lilium wardii and Lilium mackliniae, which was named after Kingdon-Ward's second wife
  • Colquhounias coccinea (The Himalayan mint plant) has deep russet-red flowers
  • The Prunus cerasoides var. rubea (Kingdon-Ward called it the 'Carmine Cherry') first bloomed at Highdown in 1938 and receiving an Award of Merit from the RHS
  • Several of Kingdon-Ward's berberis shrubs have done well at Highdown, including: B. calliantha, B. hypokerina and B. parisepala
  • Iris chrysographes var. rubella, which is low growing and has red-purple flowers. It received an Award of Merit from the RHS. It can be found by the pond at Highdown.
  • Cotoneaster conspicuus var. decorus is a prostrate shrub with scarlet berries, which birds never touch
  • Liriope platyphylla with deep blue inflorescence flower spikes. These can be seen in the rock garden at Highdown
  • Primula florindae (giant cowslip) was named after his first wife Florinda. These can be seen in the rock garden at Highdown, in the summer

* Originally 'Kingdon Ward' (no hyphen), he adopted the hyphenated form of his name 'Kingdon-Ward' for his books, and it was subsequently adopted by his family.

Photo credit:

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George Forrest - botanist and plant collector
1873 to 1932

George Forrest and his dog - copyright Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh www.rbge.org.uk

George Forrest specialised in collecting plants and seeds in Yunnan, China, particularly Rhododendrons.

Born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1873, he was the youngest of 13 children. His father was a draper. His family believed in a strong Protestant work ethic. Forrest was educated at Kilmarnock Academy, which gave an excellent grounding in science. Aged 18 he left school, but never went to university. Instead he worked in a pharmacy, where he studied plant drugs.

In 1898, financed by an inheritance from an uncle, he went to Australia. He worked as a sheep farmer and gold-digger, and also did trekking in the outback. By the time he returned to Scotland a few years later he had developed the right grittiness of character for a plant collector, and maintained a tough physique with an ability to walk 30 miles per day until the end of his life.

In 1903 his chance discovery of ancient human bones impressed the secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, who recommended him to Professor Balfour, Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. Professor Balfour offered Forrest a job in the Herbarium of dried plants, and thus Forrest's botanical career began. Balfour remained an important friend and mentor to Forrest until Balfour's death in 1922, praising him for being the prince of plant collectors.

At the Herbarium Forrest met his future wife Clementina, to whom he became engaged in 1904, married in 1907 and with whom he had three sons. His family were forced to endure long periods of separation, as Forrest spent more than half his married life abroad in Yunnan, China.

Forrest's plant collecting career began in 1904, when he was sponsored solely by Arthur Bulley of Bees Nurseries to go to China for 3 years. Between 1904 and his death in 1932 Forrest undertook seven expeditions to Yunnan in person, and also instructed his native plant collectors on how to work independently in 1929, whilst Forrest recovered from eye surgery in Scotland. This 1929 native expedition was partly sponsored by Sir Frederick Stern. By the time of Forrest's final expedition he had 40 sponsors, some of whom paid him to also collect butterflies, birds and mammals.

George Forrest (WSY0108896) - copyright RHS - Royal Horticultural Society and copyright Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

Part of Forrest's success was due to his employment of a large regular team of native plant collectors, whom he taught and supervised. With this help he was able to cover bigger areas than he could have done single-handed. In 1931, his final season, he was proud to have collected 150kg (330lb) of seeds, over 1,000 plants, and 2,000 bird and mammal skins.

Plant collecting could be a dangerous undertaking. In 1905 Forrest narrowly escaped death at the hands of rebellious Lamas by hiding in the mountains for three weeks. Two French priests who initially accompanied him on his escape were both captured and executed. Forrest lost all his possessions, including 700 dried plants, 70 species of seed and his camera.

Many of the plants at Highdown Gardens derived from Forrest's seeds or cuttings. In Sir Frederick Stern's book 'A Chalk Garden' Forrest is credited with providing Highdown Gardens with Rhododendrons, Osmanthus, Berberis, Roses, Dogwood, Buddleia, Emmenopterys, Arisaema, Tripterygium and an Acer tree. This list hints at the wide range of plants that Forrest introduced, which included many new species. Most were a success, though unfortunately the Rhododendrons were less lime-tolerant than hoped, and the Osmanthus was a poorer form than Forrest's original description, which Sir Frederick Stern attributed to a problem with Forrest's native collectors.

Forrest died suddenly on 6th January 1932 in Yunnan, where he is buried, just before he had planned to retire permanently to Scotland.

See also: RHS Exhibition - Collecting in the Clouds

Photo: George Forrest's team with presses full of blotting paper and specimens (WSY0108890) - © copyright RHS

George Forrest's team with presses full of blotting paper and specimens (WSY0108890) - copyright RHS

Photo: Plant specimens are pressed under large rocks at George Forrest's campsite in Lichiang Range (WSY0108894) - © copyright RHS and © copyright Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

George Forrest's campsite in Lichiang Range (WSY0108894) - copyright RHS & Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

Photo credits: 

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Reginald Farrer - pioneering botanist
1880 to 1920

Reginald Farrer - copyright Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh www.rbge.org.uk

Reginald Farrer was born in Marylebone, London, to a well-to-do family who resided at Ingleborough Hall, Clapham, North Yorkshire.

From early childhood he developed a passion for plants and botany and during his time at Oxford University he helped to build a rock garden at St John's College. Rock gardens were to become the subject of several of his books on gardening and his design views were greatly influenced by his expedition to Eastern Asia in 1902.

In 1914 Farrer and companion William Purdom, a fellow plantsman, set out on an ambitious expedition to Tibet and the Kansu province of North West China. They brought back numerous specimens familiar to western gardeners today, many bear his name including Geranium farreri, Buddleia farreri and Viburnum farreri. Plants from several of Farrer's early expeditions are in Highdown Gardens to this day.

On his 1914 expedition to China, Farrer describes the works of Jane Austen as his most important and bare essential item of luggage. He considered it to have been a disastrous day when the sedan chair in which he was riding slipped on a slimy track shortly after leaving Xian, and his copy of 'Northanger Abbey' flew out of his chair into the mud!

In his book 'On The Eaves Of The World' Farrer describes seed-collecting as simply the most harrowing form of gambling invented by humanity, filled with grim and glorious uncertainties. He states that you can ascend a 15,000 foot mountain with a palpitating heart only to find that the seeds never formed, never ripened or have already blown away. Alternatively the peasants may have cut them down for hay, yaks may have trampled them, or a hailstorm dashed them from the pod half an hour before you arrived.

A keen illustrator, Farrer made many botanical illustrations on his expeditions as well as collecting numerous plants and seeds. He was known as an eccentric and in one famous incident loaded a shotgun with seed collected on his travels and fired them into a rock cliff near Clapham.

Farrer's last expedition was in 1919 to Burma, where he died at the young age of 40 in the remote Minshan mountains on the Burma-Chinese frontier. His travelling companion gave diphtheria as probable cause of death, although later tales of alcohol poisoning emerged.

His lasting legacy has been his display of Himalayan plants around Ingleborough and his introduction of rock gardening to the British public.

Photo credit:

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Highdown Memories video

Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil Stern created a very special chalk garden at Highdown between the years 1909 and 1972. These Gardens are famed for the diversity of the chalk adapted plant species that the Sterns introduced and which continue to thrive to the present day.

In this film people who worked for the Sterns and those whose parents worked for the Sterns, recall the couple and their life at Highdown. This film recalls not only the Stern's success as gardeners, it also gives an insight into their lives as wealthy benefactors and their links with the local communities in Goring and Ferring.

Heritage Lottery Funded

This film (available below) was made as part of the project 'Understanding Highdown Gardens: Interpretation and Heritage', which was made possible by funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and managed by Highdown Gardens and History People UK.

As part of the project we have also produced two new interpretive leaflets and created all-weather interpretation boards, which will be discreetly placed around the Gardens, providing visitors with information about the plants and history of Highdown Gardens. These elements will be introduced to the Gardens in 2017 and also be made available on our website.

A new volunteer group, 'The Friends of Highdown Research Volunteers', was formed to research the history and plants of Highdown Gardens and in addition to historical research on the Sterns they have also produced a number of plant profiles of key plants in the collection and biographies of plant collectors connected to the Gardens (see above on this page).

We would like to thank everyone involved for all their hard work and enthusiasm and also thank HLF for providing the funding to make it possible.

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